Despite his successful appeal for retrial, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, author of The Use of Life, has been prevented from traveling through the Cairo airport by a government travel ban.
The travel ban comes in the wake of a series of trials, retrials, and acquitals, which seemed designed to punish Naji for his controversial book The Use of Life, which incorporated graphic and comic elements, under the guise of protecting public morality.
In 2016, Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for “harming public morality” after an excerpt from The Use of Life was published in the state newspaper Akhbar al-Adab. The conviction was the result of a complaint from a 65-year-old reader, who claimed that reading the excerpt caused him to have heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness due to the excerpt’s references to drugs and sex. The newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a 10,000 Egyptian pound fine (equivalent to about $1,300). After a series of appeals, filed over a period of 10 months (during most of which Naji remained imprisoned), Naji’s conviction was eventually vacated and a retrial in a separate court was ordered.
Despite this, when Naji went to travel through the Cairo airport on Thursday, he was turned away. According to a recent Facebook post by Naji, this was “on the basis of a decision by the Attorney General.” He traveled to the Attorney General’s office where it was confirmed that his travel ban was issued “concerning the publication of a chapter of the novel The Use of Life.” He was then given a phone number and told to follow up after two weeks.
The law Naji was convicted under, Article 178 of the Penal Code, has previously been decried as unconstitutional under Egypt’s 2014 constitution which assures:
Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally, in writing or as an illustration, or by any other means of expression or publication.
This law has been seen as an attempt to censor art under the pretext of “protecting morals” and Naji has called for a total repeal of the law so that it can’t be used to target other artists in the future.
This travel ban, if left in place, seems designed to further punish Naji despite the cancelation of his sentence and promised retrial. Such extra-judicial punishment further threatens to undermine not only Naji’s free speech but the free speech of other Egyptian artists.
Contributing Editor Charles Howitt is a writer and artist currently melting in the summer heat.